They Were Only Following Orders


Alan Johnson has gone on record to back Yvette Cooper for the Labour Leadership. Fine, fair enough. But in the article he wrote for the Guardian today he takes an unusual approach to the situation. In his article Johnson slams Corbyn for being a rebel. He says, “The Commons vote on the welfare bill was a mess. Shadow cabinet members felt they had to support collective responsibility. Corbyn had no such constraints. He’s been cheerfully disloyal to every Labour leader he’s ever served under. That’s fine so long as members understand that it’s the loyalty and discipline of the rest of us that created the NHS, the Open University and all the other achievements I’ve mentioned and the many that I haven’t.”

Now let’s take a look at that: Johnson asserts that it’s party loyalty that created the NHS etc. But that’s just not true. The NHS, Open University and other great creations of Labour past came not from blind loyalty and unwavering obedience but from radical minds with bold, ambitious ideas. The loyalty came from the fact that the ideas were great ones, that you’d be an idiot to oppose them. It had nothing at all to do with doing as told.

Are the other three candidates to be condemned for an abstention in opposition,” asks Johnson, “but not applauded for being part of the government that helped to increase the income of the working poor in the first place?” The answer is ‘who’s saying that? And also, why on earth should the fact that these people did good things change the fact that they deserve criticism when they do harmful things?! This kind of one-track thinking is dangerous! Only an idiot would forget all of the good that New Labour did during their years in power, just as only an idiot would forget the bad that followed. They introduced a minimum wage, paid holidays, proper maternity leave – all good things, unarguably. But they also took us into an illegal war – unquestionably a bad thing. I offer only examples.

The thrust of much criticism like Johnson’s tends to be along the lines of “New Labour did good things, so vote for the New Labour person!” and Johnson takes it a step further into what I see as a quagmire of iffy political fluff: “Having been the first political party to advocate votes for women and having advanced the feminist cause through equal opportunities legislation in the 70s and all-women shortlists in the 90s, Labour has fallen behind other political parties in failing to elect a woman as leader” he says when naming Cooper as his pick. So, what’s he saying? ‘Labour hasn’t had a woman in charge and it’s about time’? Is he really backing Cooper because she’s a woman and she’s New Labour?! Is it really that simple for him?!

Of course this decision should not be made on gender alone. I believe that Cooper has the intellect, the experience and the inner steel to succeed in this most difficult of roles.” he says, offering nothing more than a sound-bite the likes of which are usually only seen in hurried Personal References on job application forms, as written by family friends. Empty sentiment, if you ask me. Of course, he’s free to back whomever he likes, but saying the above is basically saying “I think Cooper will be a good Labour Leader because she’s got what it takes to be Labour Leader” – it’s a cyclical endorsement and means little.

Alan Johnson is a politician I respect. I still respect him. I just don’t think this article means anything. He begins with a string of historical triumphs over adversity leading to the creation of the Labour Party by brilliant men with radical ideas. Then he goes on to say that the triumphs of Labour are due to everyone doing as they are told, not for daring to think for themselves. Then he attacks CWU leader Dave Ward and others for backing Corbyn when they should be – presumably – doing as they are told and backing someone else. “The sad thing is that [Ward] obviously felt that the only way he could attract attention as a newly elected general secretary was to slag off the Labour party. In this respect he was following the example of some other leaders of affiliated unions whose only emotion when talking about Labour seems to be anger, the only volume setting loud.” Um, what?

Is Johnson seriously downplaying the weight of some of the most influential and informed individuals’ opinions – criticisms of a Labour party that has clearly lost grasp of its true roots – and making out that they are simply attention-seeking for popularity’s sake?! And he’s criticising THEM for shouting others down? How can this man have the balls to dismiss others’ opinions and criticisms in this way and still claim to be speaking from a position of democracy and truth?! It’s disgusting and, to me, is just more evidence that Johnson has nothing to say here. He’s just smearing Corbyn and those who support him and he’s doing so for his own ideological reasons.

Criticism is an essential element of debate and those criticised should have the confidence in their views to be able to defend them. Dismissing opponents are nothing but attention-seeking troublemakers is the kind of thing we’d expect from the Tory front bench, not our own members.

Johnson’s article has angered me. It reads as a preachy historical lesson in doing what you’re told. It skews fact and blurs attribution of credit for some of the greatest feats in British political history. It offers no defence of New Labour’s wrongs while preaching the importance of remembering all the good the party did in power, despite the fact that nobody’s saying otherwise. It seems to say that Johnson is backing Cooper because ‘she’s a woman, she’s a bit New Labour and it’s about time we have a woman in charge, plus she’s probably got what it takes’, which isn’t really saying much at all. I’m not even sure what the article is trying to say about Corbyn, other than ‘he rarely does as he’s told by the Party whips if he disagrees with it’.

Apparently, as Alan Johnson sees it, our choices are either vote for someone a bit New Labour, like Cooper for instance, who is also a woman and does what she’s told which is good, or vote for Corbyn who’s talk of fairness and equality will make the party unelectable and who will follow his true beliefs rather than follow the crowd, making policy with conviction based on what’s right, not what’s ordered. Which is apparently a bad thing. I know where my vote’ll go.

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